In the wake of this week’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) by President Benigno Aquino 3rd, a surprising topic grabbed the public’s attention: The involvement of a young Dutchman, Thomas van Beersum, in the annual demonstration by leftist groups denouncing the President as a human rights violator and puppet of imperialists. The protest, the highlights of which are always the burning of a very creative effigy of the President (the whole thing is sort of a weird Filipino version of Mardi Gras) followed by an hour or so of mild rioting, takes place every year and adheres to the same theme no matter who the President is.
The normally scant attention paid to the event markedly increased this year, however, because of photojournalist’s Ren Zamora’s touching account of the “crying cop”—Police Officer 1 Joselito Sevilla, who went to pieces after apparently reaching the end of his rope with hunger, exhaustion and the prospects of getting in a pointless dust-up with people he didn’t really want to hurt. While that probably did not put him in good stead with his superiors, whom I would assume expected dispassionate professionalism from all their men and women, his show of emotion provoked the remarkable response of protestors offering him consolation. Standing in stark contrast to that one, however, is the one of van Beersum “getting in Officer Sevilla’s face” as the kids would say, which van Beersum proudly posted on his Facebook page along with a rambling, incoherent justification for his actions.
As it turns out, van Beersum was part of a group of about 100 delegates, many of them from other countries, who had attended the International Conference on Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines over the weekend and stayed on an extra day to take part in the demonstration. That tends to push the involvement of van Beersum and his colleagues out of the realm of “undesirable foreign nuisance” into that of “organized agitation by foreigners associated with a known enemy of the state, resulting in bodily harm to citizens and police personnel,” which is quite a bit more serious form of meddling, one that I certainly do not condone (just in case that wasn’t obvious by now) and rightly infuriates most Filipinos, judging from the impressive volume of traffic and the tone of the comments provoked by the article on the topic I posted to my own blog.
Taking part in activities that are intentionally violent or disruptive in order to express a critical interest in an issue affecting the nation—in this case, the Philippines’ poor record on “human rights”—tends to be contradictory and counterproductive. Setting aside for the moment that conditions on visas granted to visitors specifically prohibit them from taking part in demonstrations, the logic of protesting police abuses by provoking the police into being abusive escapes me. We foreigners, particularly those of us who are visible critics of the Philippine political, social and economic environments, walk a fine line between being meddlesome and constructively critical, and it requires constant self-assessment to stay on the right side of it: Does what we are saying or doing, if it were followed to its logical end, lead to a beneficial outcome? Does it avoid causing additional harm along the way? And most importantly, does it leave the choice of what to do up to the people who have the right to decide? If we can honestly answer yes to all that, we can be fairly confident we are taking a productive interest in things; if not, it’s just meddling.
The sort of meddling engaged in by Thomas van Beersum and his comrades is for all practical purposes harmless; a potentially dangerous nuisance, certainly, and not something that should be tolerated, but in the context of the tiresome regularity of the annual anti-SONA parade that most everyone ignores anyway, largely forgettable. But there are other sorts of meddling that pose a much more serious and immediate danger, and they should not be allowed to escape the public’s notice.
A recent example was highlighted last week in this paper by lawyer Dodo Dulay, but unfortunately coincided with President Aquino’s SONA and did not get the attention it deserves (“Greenpeace crushes Filipino farmers’ hopes,” July 22). Apparently Greenpeace is behind a court petition to stop field-testing of a variety of eggplant developed at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) talong, and was able to secure an injunction against the researchers from the Court of Appeals.
The attack against the bioengineered eggplant variety is based solely on Greenpeace’s global doctrine that all genetically modified crops (GMOs) are evil (which is what identifies the case as an example of foreign meddling and not an initiative of local ‘environmental’ activists). The “anti-GMO” stance by Greenpeace is a stubbornly held bit of dogma despite the absence of any clear evidence of environmental or health risks, and the retraction of early claims by some well-known anti-GMO researchers after further study showed the claims were overstated at best. The one serious issue with GMOs that can adversely affect farmers and consumers—the fact that they are subject to patent and intellectual property laws—does not apply to UP Los Baños’ eggplant, as it was developed in a state institution and technically already belongs to the public.
As a result of the Court of Appeals ruling, eggplant farmers will now be compelled to continue existing practices of treating the pest-prone crop with insecticides, continuing to put their own health at risk as well as that of consumers, and being forced to continue to bear the considerable cost of purchasing hazardous chemicals. Greenpeace’s action does not in any way lead to a beneficial result, except perhaps, as Dulay suggests, for pesticide manufacturers; for everyone else, the result is a lower-yield, more expensive and less safe food crop. And most importantly, Greenpeace’s use of the country’s own court system to impose a scientifically wrong and irrelevant political viewpoint on Filipino farmers and consumers robs the people directly affected by the matter of their choice to decide what’s best for them.
If that’s not meddling worth getting angry about, then the word has no meaning here and the Philippines might as well set out the welcome mat for any and all activism tourists or shallow-cause fashionistas who want to visit.